When my parents first told me they used a travel agent to book their last vacation, I'll admit it: I scoffed. "How quaint!" I mused. "A travel agent! In this day and age!" Didn't my sweet parents know there are countless websites and apps dedicated to eliminating the middleman? But then my parents told me they scored a week-long, all-inclusive Mexico getaway, plus round-trip airfare for a price so low it literally made my jaw drop and I quickly ate my snobby millennial words. Maybe there was something to this whole "working with a travel agent" thing.
Please Don't Call Them Travel Agents
It turns out, there are a ton of reasons to work with a travel agent, but first things first: Don't call them that. "We're not travel agents anymore; we're travel advisers," says Erika Richter, director of communications at the American Society of Travel Advisors (ASTA), in an email interview. "It's official — we rebranded from the American Society of Travel Agents to the American Society of Travel Advisors in 2018. This change wasn't just a simple adjustment in nomenclature. Our rebrand marks the transformation of the travel industry's core transactional agent to a more holistic adviser."
OK, noted. But given the dizzying array of sites and services dedicated to self-service travel arrangements, why would anyone still choose to work with a professional? "If time is money, today's travel advisers are asset managers," Richter says. "They help you make the most of your valuable vacation time with their expertise, maximizing your spend with access and perks and giving you the peace-of-mind that someone has your back ... no matter what."
According to Richter, the modern travel adviser isn't who you might expect. "In the days before the internet, they were the original vacation hack: travel agents, in offices packed to the gills with brochures, once held the keys to the world — exclusively so," she says. "They would do the reconnaissance around the globe and become destination experts. Then these far-flung explorers, attaché case in hand, would return home to sell the fantasy of adventure and leisure while serving as necessary go-betweens to handle reservations. They sent out paper tickets of thick card-stock and secured plum commissions from airlines. Remember? Depending on when you became old enough to travel on your own, you might not remember."
And if you do remember, then you might still be wondering what's changed. "At its surface, the difference between 'travel agent' and 'travel adviser' is nothing more than subtle semantics," Richter says. "But it's actually a significant development: The gravitation toward use of 'adviser' hinges on the exact role the travel professional now plays for the client. We're moving away from the transactional 'middleman' and toward a collaborative, hands-on process between an adviser and a client. A travel adviser is your personal concierge and your best friend. They know your preferences and travel style. They provide strategic guidance for your vacation, from soup to nuts, well beyond the actual ticketing."
So what exactly are the soup and nuts in this scenario? Here are five things travel advisers are way more equipped to handle than us regular, app-downloading, travel blog-following folk:
1. They Create Personalized Travel Experiences That Are Actually Personal
"I think it's hilarious that people want 'authentic and unique' experiences — so they go to the internet and spend hours in a black hole of 'verified' reviews (and I use that term with a heavy air quote on 'verified' because we all know that bots troll review sites) and then ultimately they decide to go somewhere and do something that 5,000 of their best friends online posted pictures about," Richter says. "So ... yeah, is it authentic and unique when thousands of people you don't know are telling you is? Why not hear from someone firsthand — what's worth it and what isn't?"
According to Richter, travel advisers have the connections necessary to curate one-of-a-kind itineraries that are actually one-of-a-kind and not just hashtag-friendly and Instagram-worthy. "Travel advisers have relationships that would take you a lifetime to build — seriously," she says. "They know a guy who knows a guy. They stake their reputations in taking you beyond the 'bucket list' and help you avoid those pricey tourist traps. The internet may have democratized the exchange of information of certain locales and allowed travelers the ability to nail down hotel rooms with ease, but with so many options at their fingertips, consumers increasingly began to rely on travel professionals to be judicious about their choices. Consumers needed specialized guidance from advisers to avoid the dud hotels and side-step mediocre restaurants, to plan a bucket-list nighttime visit to the Vatican or orchestrate an elaborate honeymoon in Thailand's Koh Samui."
2. They'll Help You Save Big Bucks in Ways Travel Sites and Apps Just Can't
"Save money with free perks by tapping an expert," Richter says. "A common misconception is that travel advisers charge fees, don't work within your budget or pass fees onto the consumers. That is not true. Some advisers don't charge fees and help you avoid costly mistakes. What's more, given their buying power and relationships, you get access to additional perks at no cost." What kinds of things? Think free upgrades, complimentary meals, spa credits, late check-outs, free WiFi, etc., etc. "This is just a sampling of things that you can save on when you book with a travel adviser and it adds up!" Richter says. "These are not offered to the general consumer without fees attached."
3. They'll Tailor Everything To Your Needs and Help You Maximize Your Trip
"A trusted travel adviser can work within your budget to make the most of your travel experience," Richter says. "They can help you sort through your bucket list and give you insider advice about what's worth it and what isn't, especially when it comes to pricy tourist traps. The adviser can even provide a payment plan, so the final bill doesn't sting as much and can be spread across a few paychecks."
4. They'll Be Your Extra Eyes and Ears So You Don't Have To Sweat the Small Stuff
We've all had that panic moment of getting to the airport gate and feeling an overwhelming sense of dread. But whether you've actually shown up to flight without your passport, or you've just experienced the gut-wrenching feeling of thinking you've made that mistake, travel advisers can prevent future freakouts. "They're experts in the things you don't want to think about or often forget," Richter says. "Visa requirements and paperwork for travel documents, for example."
5. Someone Will Have Your Back, Even While You're Away
"If something goes wrong, you have a personal assistant on speed dial," Richter says. "Why wait in an endless line at the ticket counter when your travel adviser can rebook you seamlessly? And they'll take care of the other stuff too, like finding your bags and dealing with the airline. Travel advisers have dedicated contacts and access to booking systems with suppliers (airlines, cruise lines, hotels, etc.) so it's like having a personal rep escort you to the front of the line, without even batting an eye."
If you're convinced a travel adviser is what's missing from your life, Richter says it's important to make sure anyone you work with is a member of the American Society of Travel Advisors. "That's the quickest way to make sure they're truly professionals," she says. "We protect travelers by making sure our travel advisers adhere to strict ethical guidelines. If something happens between an ASTA member and a traveler, we can step in. The best way to find an ASTA Verified Travel adviser is to search our directory at TravelSense.org — you can even submit trip quotes and find an adviser based on destination and experience."